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Second Lehigh Tunnel Opens, Completing Original Penna. Turnpike

November 23, 1991

SLATINGTON, Pa. (AP) _ A 1909 Peerless wagon broke a red, white and blue ribbon in the new Lehigh Tunnel, but the tube that breaks a 34-year bottleneck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is far more modern than that.

The 4,380-foot tunnel opened Friday is the second beneath Blue Mountain, and it’s wider, taller and much more sophisticated than the original tunnel that was built in 1957.

Its ventilation fans are controlled by computers that also monitor traffic flow and temperatures in the tunnel. The new tube also has a cellular telephone repeater at the midway point so wireless conversations can continue uninterrupted.

″This is an investment in the future,″ said Gov. Robert P. Casey, who rode in the open-air wagon that was the first through the tunnel.

Casey said he dedicated the new tunnel to people ″who look to this highway not as an artery, but as a highway to new opportunity.″

The new tunnel carries two southbound lanes on the turnpike system’s Northeast Extension. The original tunnel will be re-marked and re-signed to carry two northbound lanes by Thanksgiving, turnpike officials said.

The improvements eliminate the last two-lane stretch in the turnpike’s 470 miles.

″In 1940, a new age was started with the opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,″ said Howard Yerusalim, chairman of the state turnpike commission. ″In 1957, we completed the Northeast Extension, but there was one thing wrong. We didn’t have the tunnel we are standing in today.

″We have finally finished the original turnpike,″ he said.

The turnpike provided four lanes throughout the state, except for the mile- long stretch between Slatington and Kittaninny. On many a day, drivers would sit in the bottleneck on both sides for hours.

On Friday nights, Philadelphia-area travelers seeking rest and relaxation in the Poconos stewed in city-like traffic jams. On Sunday afternoons, it was worse on the way back.

″I’ve been riding through the old tunnel ever since it was built,″ Casey said. ″Today, we mark a new era. Those days are gone.″

Gone, too, are the days when laborers would painstakingly tile every inch of the tunnel. A shiny, sealed tube that is the southbound tunnel is a sharp contrast to the mile of dull tiles in the northbound lanes.

″The Epoxy sealing on this tunnel is much more easy to maintain,″ said project manager Ken Pukita. Tiles stain easily, while the white sealant in the new tube can be scrubbed bright and clean from moving trucks.

″We’re thinking about changing the signs to say ‘Put your sunglasses on’ instead of taking them off,″ Pukita said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike was the nation’s first controlled access highway and was the model for today’s interstate highway system. It began with 160 miles between Carlisle and Irwin in central and western Pennsylvania in 1940.

The highway now stretches 360 miles east-to-west across the state and 110 miles from Philadelphia to Scranton. The new tunnel is 900 feet below the top of Blue Mountain, which carries the Appalachian Trail.

A second tunnel on the Lehigh-Carbon county line was proposed as early as 1972, but estimated construction costs during the 1973 Arab oil embargo made the project cost prohibitive, Pukita said.

Traffic got steadily worse, and in July 1989 the commission began construction.

The tunnel is the only one in the United States built with the New Austrian Tunneling Method, which eliminates the need for steel bracing and concrete, the turnpike commission said. Its builders say the elliptical tunneling, as opposed to horseshoe-type tunneling, allows the rock to carry more of the load.

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